It's 6:30 a.m. While most New Yorkers are still sleeping, farmers - at a sprinter's pace - are turning one of the city's urban parks into a real-life cornucopia.
White-canvas shelters are popping up like mushroom caps. Folding tables snap open, and then, faster than you can say "heirloom tomatoes," the bounty is ready.
There are 18 varieties of onions, yellow carrots, striped beets that have concentric pink rings and a mild taste, and a squash that looks like a medieval trumpet - long, thin, and curling back on itself as if nature had second thoughts about this plant.
Buckets hold flowers so fragrant bees arrive, looking for pollen. In fact, the bees might as well have their own stall, because not far away are jars of New York City honey.
You're right. This is not the produce aisle of your local supermarket. It's a walk on the "wild side" of fruits and vegetables. This is New York's Union Square Greenmarket.
But, this could just as well be the Farmers' Market in Spokane, Wash., where one grower sells 26 varieties of potatoes - without the common russet in sight. Or, the Fondy Market in Milwaukee, where a salad mix can include "pokeweed," that zesty green that helped many families make it through the Great Depression.
For the farmer, it means better prices and no middlemen. For the consumer, the attraction is simple: food so fresh, the morning dew may still be glistening on a chocolate-colored eggplant. And, there's a good chance the farmer or his wife has a special tip on how to keep the basil, often with roots still attached, fresh for the week.
There's usually plenty of time in the market for the chitchat that helps tie neighbor to neighbor, making the market part of the social fabric, not just a series of vegetable stalls.
There must be something about it, because farmers' markets have grown as fast as corn in August. According to the US Department of Agriculture, from 1994 to 2000, the number of markets increased 63 percent. There are now about 2,800 markets with some 19,000 farmers selling their products.
"They are happening on their own, but we are interested in identifying as many opportunities [as possible] for farmers to increase their farm profitability and continue in the farming business," says Errol Bragg, program manager for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.
In Seattle, the growth has been phenomenal. In 1997, the markets had $5 million in sales. But, over the past few years, Puget Sounders have fallen in love with their farmers markets, and last year bought $12 million in produce. One market in the University District sells $50,000 worth of produce - a lot for even the largest grocery store - every Saturday. "That's a lot of lettuce," says Zachary Lyons, director of the Washington State Farmers Market Association.
Communities now realize that a farmers' market can be a valuable tool for urban renewal. "They help to stabilize neighborhoods and bring back economic activity," says Nancey Green Leigh, a professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta.
That's certainly the case in Milwaukee, where farmers' markets have grown from five to 12 markets in the past five years.
One of those markets, the Fondy Market, is in the poorest section of the city. Now, Milwaukee's Hunger Task Force, which organizes the markets, is planning to erect a year-round $5 million market in the predominately African-American neighborhood.
For Fondy residents, the green market means lower prices. "They have been underserved by traditional grocers," says Tim Locke, executive director of the Fondy Food Center. "People are paying way too much for lower-quality food."
However, in the past, neighborhood residents went to the grocery stores because they could use food stamps, which now are delivered via a plastic credit-card type of device. …